An open letter published by the McGill Student Society cited my publications in PJ Media and demanded that McGill University cancel me. More specifically, the society demanded that my status as Emeritus Professor of Anthropology be revoked. This letter was signed by the McGill Student society, anthropology undergraduate and graduate societies, four student Middle Eastern and Islamic groups, and a black student group.
The open letter targeted a more general policy, that of academic freedom. The view expressed in the open letter is that academic freedom should not allow opinions that the signatories disagree with or facts that they might find uncongenial. The signatories believe that they should be the arbiters of what may be thought, said, and written. This is an ambitious role for students to claim, rather akin to a ministry of truth in a closed, Soviet, or Maoist dictatorship.
The open letter takes particular exception to one of my PJ Media articles:
Framing this as an issue of Professor Salzman’s academic freedom, rather than the right of Muslims and People of Colour have to feel safe, illustrates the ways in which McGill maintains structures that protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues. [brackets added]
The open letter does not take issue with the truth of the offending statement, or offer argument and evidence attempting to show that it is incorrect, but the letter’s authors limit their efforts to calling me names—“racist” and “Islamophobic”—about an article in which neither race nor Islam were mentioned. In other words, there is no attempt to engage in academic or even common civil discourse to ascertain truth, because truth is not of interest to the students; as far as they are concerned, only their feelings count.
The letter is explicit in saying that the only criterion that should be applied is “the right of Muslims and People of Colour have to feel safe.” Apparently, only opinions that make people feel good about themselves allow them “to feel safe.” This is of course a new definition of what “safety” is: never hearing anything, no matter how true, that you find unpleasant.
Unlike most of these student signatories, including the ones from Middle Eastern and Islamic families, I have spent considerable time living in the Middle East, much of it engaged in ethnographic research in the desert with tribal peoples. My concern about the violence in the Middle East might be taken by fair-minded readers as an admirable, humanitarian concern. It seems likely that many of the McGill student signatories are from families that left the Middle East and brought their children to Canada in order to have a safer and more secure, as well as a freer and more prosperous life. These students do not appear to have learned the lesson of their emigration, or the values of the country to which they immigrated.
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In the open letter, and in subsequent articles, critics have cited many of my articles, mentioning them by subject or title, denouncing them as expressing unacceptable opinions. But none of the opinions expressed in my articles are explained, none of the arguments presented, and none of the evidence countered. In many cases, the students’ gloss on my articles radically distorts what the articles actually say. It seems uncertain whether the students ever actually read the articles. Certainly, neither the open letter nor subsequent student newspaper articles criticize the articles in any serious substantive fashion. The students apparently hold some woke quasi-religious creed that may not be challenged and regard those who do challenge that creed as heretics who must be canceled. Re-education camps are already working in many institutions, with diversity and inclusion officers policing heretics.
I have already replied to the anthropology students. Anthropology when I entered as a student and then as a professor was an intellectually serious field. Now, having succumbed to grievance narratives, it is little more than a font of woke victimology. Its social analysis is warmed-over Marxist class conflict between identity classes and advocacy for identity politics. Contemporary anthropologists have betrayed anthropology and academic values, which are rarely found in universities today.
Returning to the offending phrase “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty,” let us consider briefly whether there is any evidence to indicate a prima facie case for its truth. Leave aside the brutal conquests of the Arab Muslim Empire, its invasions and colonies from India to Iberia, its massive enslavement of conquered populations, and the slave-raiding from Africa to Ireland that continued right into the twentieth century. Forget the Turks’ genocide of the Armenians, and the hundred-year Arab terrorist war against the Jews, Saddam’s poison gas attack on his own Kurdish civilians in Halabja, and Sudan’s war against its own “infidel” citizens.
Let’s just stick to recent events. There is the on-and-off war between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran against their Kurdish citizens, the war against Middle Eastern Christians, Baha’i, Yazidi, and other minorities, and, most egregious, the fanatical Islamic State and its maximal brutality, from capturing Yazidi girls and women, gang-raping them, selling them as sex slaves, and then murdering them; to beheading prisoners; to burning alive opposition soldiers. Finally, there is the Syrian war, whether seen as a war of the government against its citizens, or a civil war inspired by Sunni-Shia conflict, in which up to a half-million people—men, women, children, the elderly—died of bullets, bombs, exposure, or starvation.
Perhaps the McGill Middle Eastern and Muslim students do not see any of this as cruelty and harm. Perhaps they are fine with it. Then they should tell us exactly what this is, and how they justify it other than trying to blame someone else.
Like the cruelty and violence in the Middle East, there are many truths that we are no longer allowed to speak about, lest these truths offend someone’s “identity” or contradict the extremist and false views of woke activists. For example, it is forbidden to say that men and women are biologically fundamentally different, and that, other than in imagination, men can never be women and women can never be men. It is forbidden to say what statistics prove absolutely, that African Americans are at great risk, not from police, but from African American criminals. Above all, it is forbidden to state that “systemic racism” does not exist in America, and that statistical disparities among racial census categories are primarily the result of social and cultural conditions and not the result of discrimination. Today, the official institutional culture in the English-speaking world is a set of motivated lies designed to distinguish the elite from the mass of the population and to divide and weaken the people in favor of the elite.
Students, encouraged by their Marxist and neo-Marxist professors, and by university policies of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” that privilege students from some minorities, have become America’s and Canada’s Maoist Red Guard, upholding the official lies by attacking fellow students and professors who do not endorse extremist views in order to silence and destroy them. No unwelcome opinions are tolerated, and no discussion of difficult questions allowed. This is no less than the death of the Enlightenment academic tradition and its replacement with far-left Marxist and far-right Islamist propaganda.
Recently many academics have been “canceled,” losing their posts, salaries, and even careers for expressing an opinion or even saying a word that some students and professors found objectionable. In my case, the McGill Red Guard was foiled. Strong support for academic freedom and for myself was provided by the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship through letters to the University and to the student signatories, the American National Association of Scholars in an international petition, and the British Free Speech Union in another international petition, as well as letters and articles from a number of colleagues.
In the end, McGill affirmed its commitment to academic freedom, saying that “no single idea, argument, word, or work is ‘prohibited’ at McGill.” Regarding the student demands that my emeritus status be revoked, McGill stated that “Although ‘emeritus’ status may be revoked for misconduct, that term refers to misconduct as defined by the regulations and policies that apply to tenure-track and tenured academic staff. The exercise of academic freedom or freedom of expression, within the boundaries acknowledged by law, is not misconduct under those regulations and policies.” I am an Emeritus Professor still.